‘Shutter Island’: Is Scorsese Still a ‘Master of Film’?

Back in December, I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island as one of my “Things to Look Forward to in 2010.” After too many weeks of not getting around to it, I finally saw it last weekend. I know, I’m a little late for a prompt review. But the truth is, the nature of Shutter Island’s story makes it difficult to review without giving away anything, or ruining it for somebody somehow. So instead, I want to take a look at the filmmaking and film quality of the movie, as it stacks up to other Scorsese works.

Let me start with this: Shutter Island was good, but it’s not perfect. And before you say I can’t expect perfection, let me remind you that this is Martin Scorsese we’re talking about. Perfection is what he’s delivered as a master of film marked by precision, and perfection is what we’ve come to expect. He was one of the original “Movie Brats” (or New Hollywood filmmakers), meaning – basically – he studied movies before he started making the big ones. (Sidenote: His professor-like overview of Italian film, called Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, is worth a watch/education.) He was of the film school breed – one of those kids who grew up obsessed with movies and held an infinite knowledge of film before he even really started. When he did start, he became known as both precise and artful. “A master of film” is the phrase that we probably hear most when a film critic or scholar is talking about Scorsese.

Now, Scorsese is a director who’s managed to go from raw, smallish movies like Raging Bull and transition smoothly into the world of high-budget Hollywood. All the while keeping his unique and definite style intact, however, as it seems like some sort of sacrilege for me to call Scorsese “Hollywood.” Yes, Hollywood loves him and he works in it. But he doesn’t really succumb to it. Most of the time.

I think it’s worth mentioning that the thing about Scorsese’s movies – even as they’ve gotten more and more high-budget with each film – is that he knows how to move through them. Emotionally via the plot, but mostly physically – with the camera: Dolly-shots, lighting, and all camera moves perfected, editing impeccable. Shutter Island, unfortunately, is not what we’d call “impeccable.” Overall, some scenes stand out more than others, as in: “Oh! That scene was especially awesome!,” and you’ll know them when you watch them. But then there are some messes.

Take the first long scene, for instance. I don’t know if moviegoers who have never studied filmmaking noticed this, but I personally find it almost impossible not to… The scene where Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) stand at the front of the boat on their way to Shutter Island. It’s horribly edited and just plain messy. Actions and eyelines throughout the whole conversation are askew and don’t match up, not to mention the color of each shot. (Dark one second, lighter the next.) In a sentence, you notice the edits. And not in an “experimental,” intentional way. In a bad way. Like it was rushed overnight.

While I am probably being overly critical, this really bugged me for the first few minutes. To be fair, it only happened again (and not nearly as bad) in a few other scenes. So it wasn’t the whole movie that was poorly edited. But still, it didn’t have the Scorsese move and feel to it, really. Even The Departed felt this way and bothered me at times. I know everyone loved The Departed, but I couldn’t really get into it. It felt choppy and half-done for Scorsese. Especially with what some people referred to as the “Three Stooges” ending. What happened to the fluidity of his movies, even the big, grand-scale ones like Casino or the more recent Gangs of New York, and especially The Aviator?

Something else that I at first mistook as a technical flaw in Shutter Island were all the green screens. And then the music. Why is the music so loud and overbearing and melodramatic?, I asked myself. But then at some point it all came together, and I realized this film was heavily inspired by Hitchcock’s cinematic style, particularly Vertigo. That I can appreciate. But I’m still not sure that I can justify the roughly edited first scene.

By the very end, the nod to Hitchcock, the sometimes hokey acting, the music and all the rest of it came together somehow. Almost neatly. Whatever it was, it made sense at the end. It’s just the road to getting there that was often frustrating and very rocky.  Though I questioned Scorsese’s technique during the viewing of this movie, I am intrigued, satisfied, and would see it again. I know it sounds like I just ranted about the film quality for no apparent reason, but I think it goes to show: No matter how “imperfect” I found Shutter Island to be the first go around, there are some things Scorsese will never fail to accomplish. For one, the intrigue that’s more like a subconscious addiction.

It’s what I felt when I watched Raging Bull for the umpteenth time while everyone else around me in film school found it unbearable. It what’s I felt when I went to the theater three times to see Gangs of New York when everyone asked me if I was crazy, why I wouldn’t spend money on a movie I hadn’t seen yet. It’s that undeniable urge that Scorsese produces in his own specific way… That “coming back for more” even though you’re not really sure what’s got you coming back. And by the fifth or sixth time you might put a finger on it, but you’ll already be in love.

Perhaps that is what’s currently happening to me as I continue to throw Shutter Island around in my mind, make plans to see it again, and write about its imperfections.

Things to Look Forward to in 2010, #2: ‘Shutter Island’

Promo poster for the October release

Because we’ve waited long enough.

Shutter Island will be the fourth collaborative reunion of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (also known as Scorsese’s “New DeNiro”). Set to be released in October of this year, fans saw the trailer and became ecstatic and curious. For one, this seems like a different departure for both DiCaprio and Scorsese given its supernatural thriller genre.

The release was then pushed back to February 2010, a few months too late for the Oscar race. Paramount’s reasons were reported to be “[not having] the financing in 2009 to spend the $50 to $60 million necessary to market a big awards pic like this,” as well as other reasons like DiCaprio not being able to promote the film worldwide during that time.

Hopefully, the wait will be well worth it. And it’s yet another piece of visual media for me to look forward to in the new decade.